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I DIDN'T KNOW Tim Chambers. Didn't have enough time. But our paths crossed two weeks ago in Martin, Tenn., where we went to participate in a three-day camp at the Sankey Rodeo School, a bronco- and bullriding school, one of about a dozen in the U.S. Almost all of the 32 men there had an interest in becoming serious bullriders. The rest of us—the ones like me and Tim—had enrolled in the $390 class for the experience. As a journalist I figured I'd at least wind up with a story. But like Tim, a 49-year-old with a wife and two children in East Market, Tenn., I wanted to know what it felt like to wrestle a 1,500-pound animal and to compete in one of the fastest-growing sports in America.
Every year 1.5 million people attend professional bullriding events, and the top riders earn half a million dollars. The appeal to fans is obvious: There's plenty of action and plenty of danger. Hard data on bullriding fatalities is hard to find, but just last November, two riders, one in Kansas, the other in Arkansas, were killed in minor league competitions. In 1989 former world champ Lane Frost was killed when he was gored in the side by the bull that tossed him in Cheyenne.
There is, to be sure, an art to staying on a bucking bull, but danger, you can make the case, is even a bigger business. Look at the dozens of racing schools that offer the chance to drive stock cars, dragsters and even speedboats. You can go to school to learn how to race an airplane or how to jump out of one. Danger doesn't just make some sports more entertaining, it is entertainment itself, at least to those who watch crocodile wrestling and extreme skating on MTV's Jackass and in the movies it has spawned.
Last year for an SI story I went three rounds with former super featherweight champion Juan Manuel M�rquez. Although at 185 I outweighed him by 50 pounds, I wound up with a split lip and a couple of bruised ribs. But there is a difference between getting in the ring with a boxer who can immediately recognize your limitations and getting on a bull that doesn't care if you're a first-timer or Ty Murray, just so long as you are off his back.
After about three hours spent signing liability waivers (including one that had to be notarized), learning how to use our ropes and spurs, and going over the basics of riding (keep your shoulders square and hold on), we were up on a bull. Riders had to wear flak jackets, and we were given the option of wearing a hockey helmet, which I did. On the second day, I climbed onto a particularly ornery animal whose name I didn't catch. As I struggled in the chute to position myself, it slammed its body against one side of the gate, crushing my ankle until it felt like it was going to snap. "Push him over!" shouted one of the instructors. While I was trying to imagine how to do that, the bull crashed down on its front legs and whirled its head toward me as if it were possessed. "Holy s—," I mumbled through my mouthpiece.
As soon as the bull righted itself, I gave the nod and the gate popped open. The bull took off into the arena, and after a few powerful kicks, I flew over its head onto the unforgiving dirt. "You looked like a missile," fellow student Ryan Allen, a police officer from Arlington, Va., said in amazement after I'd scrambled back through the gate. Still shaking, I took off my helmet and leaned against the wall. My collarbone was broken, but I didn't know that yet.
A few hours later, at about 2 p.m. on a Saturday, I was back in the arena, an ice bag taped to my shoulder. Tim Chambers—a short, stocky Army vet—was climbing onto another bull. Everything began well enough: Tim got into position, secured his rope around its midsection and gripped the gate. When he nodded his head (he wasn't wearing a helmet), the gate swung open and the bull began to buck. It didn't take more than two kicks for Tim to lose his grip. But instead of flying away from the bull, the way most people do, Tim slid under the bull, which continued to buck wildly. Both of its back legs landed on Tim's body, one grazing his face and one striking his chest.
It didn't last more than a few seconds. The bullfighters in the arena calmly lured the bull away from Tim, who stumbled to his feet. The UT-Martin athletic training staff got to him quickly, and within minutes the ambulance that had been parked outside the arena swung into action. But Tim stopped breathing en route to the hospital and that evening died of massive internal injuries.
The class went on. According to Lyle Sankey, it was just the second fatality in the 33-year history of his school, and he sounded somber when he talked about it. "It's horrible when something like this happens," he says. "But bullriding is a violent sport. We do everything possible to make sure everyone is safe, but there is only so much you can do when something that big hits you like that."
At a local bar that night, Allen, the Virginia cop, and I pondered the question of why we had come to Tennessee. "Maybe it was for the adrenaline rush, the sweet-ass bar story or to get chicks," said Allen. "It sure as hell wasn't to die."